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In a week in which the story of our world was one of wind and rain and human suffering and destruction by storm, the story of scripture this morning is one of dryness and hunger and human suffering and destruction by drought.
A lot has happened with the kings… we go from David and Solomon and a united monarchy, to a divided kingdom. Sometime in the past nine chapters, the ten tribes of the north revolted against Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. So now, there is no longer one king over God’s people, but there are two, over the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. The narrative goes back and forth between the two kingdoms, and this week we are in the north, where the king is Ahab. Perhaps you are familiar with him? If not Ahab, perhaps you’ve heard of his wife: Jezebel.
According to archaeologists, Ahab was an incredibly successful king. The northern kingdom under his rule was strong, it was robust—it had large armies and thriving trade. Lots of land.
It also practiced child sacrifice.
This comes as a shock, until we remember that the first commandment is this: “I, the Lord, Yahweh your God, am God alone. You shall have no other gods beside me.” Ahab and Jezebel are not known today for the success of their economy or the strength of their military industrial complex. They are known as the worst sinners of the all the monarchs, for their willingness to abandon Yahweh and worship other gods. Ahab and Jezebel worship Ba’al, a storm-god. And when we stop putting God first, we also stop prioritizing our love of God’s people—even, at times, our children.
Kings are fascinating, now as well as in biblical times. But let’s never forget: fascinating as they may be, in that People Magazine kind of way, the story of scripture is not, in the end, the story of kings. The story of scripture is the story of God and all God’s people.
And so Elijah appears, Elijah the prophet. There is much confusion about that word, about what a prophet is, and what a prophet does. The simplest definition of a prophet is this: a prophet is a truth-teller. A prophet “speaks truth to power,” as the Quakers put it. Elijah speaks the truth to Ahab: “As Yahweh the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” [1Kings 17:1]. You think your storm-god is so powerful? Watch this.
Elijah calls upon Yahweh the God of Israel to dry up the rain, a most excellent poke in the eye of the storm-god and his followers. And then, following Yahweh’s advice, Elijah high-tails it out of there. Because speaking truth to power is a risky business, and Elijah would do well to hide.
For a time Elijah lives off the land, with the help of God-directed ravens and the water from a wadi. But when the wadi dries up—because, after all, Elijah has called upon God to cause a drought, and God has done so—God tells Elijah: “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.”
Let’s just break this down, so we can truly appreciate God’s sense of, if not humor, at least irony. “Go to Zarephath.” In other words, go to the hometown of Jezebel. Yes. That’s right. The wife of the king you have just so royally ticked off, from whom you are on the run for your life.
And “Go to a widow, who will feed you.” In other words, go to one who is known to be the most vulnerable, the most likely to be poor, the least likely to have resources to help. New Yorkers, go to Rockaway. They’ll help you.
Elijah goes to the widow. He asks for a “little water” and a “morsel of bread”—not much, by any standard. And the widow replies: “As Yahweh your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die” [1 Kings 17:12]. The widow—and she is unnamed, as are so many women in scripture—she replies with words that indicate just how bad things are, just how poor she is, just how little she has. She uses words like “nothing” and “a handful” and “a little” and “a couple.” She speaks like a woman condemned, but one who is ready to die with dignity.
Under these circumstances, Elijah might have been expected to back away from his request for food. But he does not. I think it’s kind of like that part of the instructions when you are in the airplane, and they tell you to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you put it on the person next to you. Elijah is asking to have his oxygen mask first—because if he dies, the chances that he will be able to save the widow, or her son, or anyone else, go out the window. And that is what he is offering: salvation, in the first, original sense of the word. He will save lives, he will end real human suffering. The jug of oil will not go dry. The jar of meal will not run out. That is his promise.
And the widow, remarkably, goes, and does as Elijah has told her.
A friend of mine writes a regular religion column for the Albany Times-Union. This week she wrote on the topic of “All Saints,” recognizing that many churches were celebrating it, either on Thursday or today. The title of her column was “Dignity, Humanity, Humility, and Welcome.”[i] Those qualities are at the heart of the actions of that unnamed woman, the widow of Zarephath. Though she is at the end of the line, and at the end of her rope, she expresses herself and acts with quiet dignity. Her suffering and her ability to connect with another human being who is also suffering speak to her deep humanity. Her willingness to share what she has—not to mention her acknowledgement of Elijah’s God, the God of Israel—show true humility. And even though she has next to nothing, she is willing to give hospitality: welcome.
When our backs are up against the wall, and we feel we have little or nothing left to offer, we still have these things. When we are like the ninety year-old woman who didn’t have the heart or the energy to evacuate her home in Rockaway, we still have our dignity, which allows us to speak and act as if our words and actions matter. When we are like my friend Tom who huddled in his mother’s home with his wife and son, through five days without heat, electricity, or the ability to get anywhere for gas or food, we still have our humanity, which, let’s never forget, means that we have been created in the image of God. When we are a disappointed marathon runner who really wanted a chance to test the limits of our training and our willpower, we still have our humility, which means we know the difference between ourselves and God. And when we are a young person living in a relatively unscathed part of New York City, we still have the ability to show welcome, hospitality—to organize a clothing drive for neighbors who have lost all theirs. This is the abundance of God—who we are, who we have been created to be—the kind of abundance that allows a poor widow who has absolutely nothing to nevertheless give half of that nothing to a stranger.
The story of scripture is the story of God and God’s people. And we start with abundance: we are made in God’s image, with some tiny share in God’s capacity for reaching out to one another, for lifting one another up, for sharing a morsel of bread and a sip of drink. And when we do, the jug does not run dry, the jar does not go empty, and our story is joined to the great story, the story that never grows old. Thanks be to God. Amen.